December 5, 1999

Dear Josh,

You haven’t written in some time, so I thought I’d drop a line to let you know that I spied your poems at the on-line journal, Was the one about “the sky’s dark heart” about me? It seemed like it was.

I’m glad to see that you’re still pursuing your writing, even though no one reads poems, or journals, or on-line journals. The real money is still in books. There are many kinds of books, as you no doubt know. But specifically, I’m talking about novels, by which I mean thrillers. Have you thought about writing one of those? If so, I’d suggest that you first concentrate on composing a good story.

A “story” is something an author creates in order to generate interest in his novel from movie producers. For this reason, it is critical that the story can be described very quickly, preferably in one sentence of no more than 16 words. For example:

“John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald meet in hell and team up to assassinate Satan.”

This story follows the time-honored structure of all stories: exposition (“John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald”); complication and foreshadowing (“meet in hell and”); rising action (“team up to”); and climax (“assassinate Satan”). There was a time that a denouement or a moment of reflection would follow the climax. This is no longer necessary.

The smart author, after considering his story, will ask this question: is it good? So it is often a good idea to brainstorm a number of stories and test them against a focus group. This can be done easily. For example, the above-mentioned story was submitted via e-mail to a number of disinterested parties, along with two alternative stories:

“John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald meet in hell and team up to assassinate God.”
“John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald meet in hell and team up to assassinate all the dead presidents.”

The parties were asked a simple question: which is the best story? And because some of the parties were writers, they were reminded that all three stories remain in perpetuity the exclusive intellectual property of the sender, and that the parties would not be compensated for their input. It is important to note this at all times, because writers are greedy and thieving and sly.

The results were surprising. Only 22% agreed that “Satan” should be the object of assassination. 36% preferred “God.” And 42% picked “presidents.”

The numbers speak for themselves, but it is important to balance them with common sense. One respondent pointed out that God could not be assassinated for, as well all know, God is dead. Absolutely correct. And of course, the answer could not be “presidents,” because then the story would consist of more than 16 words—in this case, a completely unmanageable 19!

Some respondents suggested even more story alternatives, including the idea that because neither Booth nor Oswald were actually assassins—rather, patsies in the machinations of shadowy conspiracies among bankers and ex-military officers and mean women—they should simply be portrayed as bungling goofballs who are helplessly in over their heads (ie. a “buddy comedy”). Such elaborations upon your original story idea should be discarded: they were not requested, conspiracy stories are now hopelessly dated, and they violate your artistic vision. It’s not surprising in this case that the more creative respondents were writers, and they will be promptly sued.

So it turns out that the correct response is:

“John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald meet in hell and team up to assassinate Satan.”

This is true…
a) because you may now write your hero as a tough-talking, does-things-his-own-way, recently-fallen angel (think Mel Gibson for the movie, or Harvey Keitel?) who must earn his ticket back to heaven by stopping Booth and Oswald, even though he hates Satan and wouldn’t mind if they succeeded—this adds “depth” to your story, which some like if it doesn’ t get in the way of a good story; and…
b) because it was your first idea. You’ll find that your first idea is almost without exception the best, and the opinions of others should really only be courted to make them feel useful.

Now that you have the story in place, the novel practically writes itself. Although you do technically need a writer to pose for photos and appear at signings. Which is why I’m writing you, Josh. Kindly submit your first draft chapter outline and character breakdown for “Sic Semper Satan” by the end of next week. Please note that you will not be compensated for this work, and that the entire contents of this letter remain my personal and inviolable intellectual property. I look forward to reading your work!

That is all.

Your cousin,

John Hodgman
Professional Literary Agent

PS: Don’t write any more poems about me.